On Writerly Courage: Rhino Skin and God Consciousness

My post on singlehood was recently published in AltMuslimah, and, for the first time, I experienced what it is like to have my thoughts disseminated to a much larger Muslim community.

Before I started blogging, I was warned to be ready for the inevitable: not all readers, I was told, will be happy about what I’ve written. So I braced myself. It wasn’t easy, but I dealt with it a lot better than I would have had I not been aware of the need for rhino skin and God consciousness.

I’m luckier than the many, many people whose lives are under threat because of the things they write. I am far more blessed than those who live under siege, who make sacrifices to say what needs to be said for the betterment of their political and social conditions. I’ve got nothing over these people. But I will whine. I will indulge. So bear with me.

See, the irksome paradox is that in order to be a writer who has to be heard, you have to say something original, and in order to glean insight for that originality, you have to be sensitive. So when you have to write the damn thing, you employ all the hypersensitivity you are blessed or cursed with. But when it’s time for the readerly public to deliver their verdict, it’s time to don the cloak of rhino skin: supremely thick skin. The sensitivity that was such an asset in the writerly process becomes a liability, so you just have to suck it up, maintain some semblance of dignity, and stand firmly by what you say.

Tom Petty’s Rhino Skin got me through a lot of rough times because it’s such a tender, honest testament to the stark reality of being in this world. The name of the song has entrenched itself in the part of me that tends to take things too seriously. “Deep breaths. Rhino skin. Rhino skin.”

It took a very thick skin–rhino skin–to read comments from people who disagreed with the piece and took out their metaphorical label makers to make all-encompassing generalizations about Muslim women generally and myself specifically. My friends plead with me to not take it to heart, to not even read such feedback, for that matter. But I can’t do that. Readers who have issues with what I’ve read glanced into my mind, and they didn’t like what they saw. Again, that’s inevitable. Some will love what they see, some will hate it, some will think it’s just meh. But I can’t just surround myself with praise and flowers and sunshine and pretend everything’s fine. There is no right and wrong way of reading anything. Who am I to say that a commentator with the finesse of an oaf and the empathy of a dull three-year-old is completely and utterly off the mark? Maybe that dullness, that oafness, allowed him to see something that would have been completely missed by the rest of us.

So I can’t filter out that kind of feedback. I need rhino skin and God consciousness to handle it. Rhino skin dealt with actually fielding the arrows shot my way. But I realized that I wasn’t alone in doing so. I had a source of strength, the strength that comes from this comes from turning to Allah, doing a writerly duaa, and in it acknowledging that He alone knows what my intention in writing that piece was. He alone knows what a struggle it was to be able to think the thoughts needed to write that piece.

Am I a fitna-mongerer? Am I pushing pushing singles over the brink into a zina-infested existence? I pray that that it not be so. I’m not one to rule out that possibility. But Allah is.

The assumptions of people thinking I am glorifying something illicit hurts, and the thought that there is any sliver of truth in what they say is what haunts me. What it does in the long run, however, is make me turn to Allah and pray that the things I say only be a source of good, and that I keep being blessed with the courage to write, and that I do so in a way that brings others closer to His light, not away from it.

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On Reading Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture

224 pp. Quirk Publishing. Image Source: ThinkGeek.com

Title: Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture

Authors: N. K. Jemisin (Author), Genevieve Valentine (Author), Eric San Juan (Author), Zaki Hasan (Author), Stephen H. Segal (Editor)

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 224

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Review copy from author

I have always loved being around geeks, and thanks to this book, I now know why. Geeks offer an insight into the world that is shaped by the love for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the humility that comes with being an outsider, and the authenticity that comes with a disavowal for what is mainstream.

The very title of this book attests to the fact that there is a sacred element in geekdom, and this is the element that spoke to me personally. In the introduction to this book of quotations from cult classic films, literature, comic book legends, and even internet memes, the co-authors talk about “a framework of ideas–a body of thought shared by a community, written and handed down through literature–that’s intended to guide us toward maturity by helping us ask and answer the big, cosmic questions about existence.” And get this: they’re talking about traditional religious texts and how such narratives answer these questions. They continue by saying

The stories in each [religious] tradition . . . ultimately boil down to this: Hey, show some respect for the universe, because it’s a whole lot bigger than you. You know what? Religion isn’t the only place to find those kinds of stories . . . . Hence Geek Wisdom: The first compendium of sacred teachings from the wide-ranging “holy scriptures” of geekdom, that weird mass of pop culture and high art ranging from blockbuster movies to esoteric novels to cult-classic T-shirt slogans.

There could have been no better case made for the collection of quotes that followed and made up the bulk of this book. Drawing on a century’s worth of enduring quotes from films, comic books, TV shows, video games, and literature from the Western canon, the authors comment on what it is that makes each quote a sacrament.

For me these quotes fell into the following camps:

Quotes that already had cemented such a such a permanent place in my heart that seeing them as a part of this collection took my breath away: “Specialization is for insects.” “So it goes.” “I can has cheezburger?”

Quotes that I remembered hearing and wondering about on at least one occasion, and learned more about here: “Wax on, wax off.” “Knowing is half the battle!”

Quotes I didn’t remember, but loved learning about because they were from sources I was familiar with: “Two and two make five.” “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!”

It also went the other way around with quotes that I had never heard and whose sources I wasn’t too well-acquainted with, but nevertheless moved me deeply or gave me the chills: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.” “You–You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” “Soylent Green is made out of people.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like each quote and its commentary was a blazingly brilliant supernova in itself. There were also quotes that I didn’t understand and thus their commentary didn’t resonate with me. On that note, there were also a few times that the commentary felt to me a bit deflated, like it was taking away from the quote rather than adding on to it. Those instances, fortunately, were extremely rare. Plus, when it comes to quotes that make up the stuff of cultural currency, no amount of meta-thought and musing can be nearly as good as the original thing.

The authors may be proud to be the curators and vessels of this wisdom, but esoteric as their knowledge and opinions are, they never resort to being arrogant guardians of geek legacy. While celebrating geek wisdom, the book is incredibly self aware of where geekiness falls short of the ideal. For example, the authors poke fun at the geeks who take themselves way too seriously, and they address the issues of female objectification and racism. In a world populated by geeks who think they are the universe’s gift to the intellectual world, it is difficult not to appreciate writers who readily acknowledge the shortcomings of the very culture they were born out of.

This book made me realize that true geekdom has to do with being in awe of the universe and intellectual world we live in. This was the connection to the sacred that was made in the introduction of the book. There is a humility that comes out of that awe, and perhaps if the writers made a more direct connection to how the lack of that humility falls radically short of being a true geek, their critique of pseudo-geeks on their high unicorns (or gargoyles, or whatever) would have really cinched it. To me, anyway.

Above all, however, this book celebrates being different, being original, having esoteric passions and sensibilities, and being the kid who stayed holed up in her room reading on weekend nights while the other kids from high school shopped, gossiped, and went to parties. To such a kid, this book is home. This book is not perfect, but it will always be your non-judgemental, quirky, Star Wars-watching, fiercely loyal friend. If you have such a friend, or if you are that kind of friend, don’t just read this book. Buy it.

This book isn’t something that will rot on the shelf and be donated to the library the next time it is noticed. It is more than a collection of quotes: it is a guide for what to see, what to read, to feel like you are standing on the shoulders of giants. It is a portal into the the place where knowledge and soul-enriching art and yes, the sacred, intersect. And let me tell you, that’s one good place to be.

On Sickness, in Health

I have noticed a number of people in my social media feeds talking about their health problems. They are usually chronic health issues that range from diabetes to allergies to migraines. I sometimes get irked by the how often these people talk about such issues. But I am trying not to feel this way, because I have no right to feel this way.

As someone who, by the grace of Allah, has never had a debilitating illness, or even a fracture, I am ashamed of the scorn I inadvertently may feel for people who are in bad health. So I thought that writing about this would help me and other healthy people become more grateful for what we are blessed with, and be more sensitive to those who do not have this gift.

Someone I know has a condition that causes her debilitating migraines and muscular cramps. A very strict regimen of diet, exercise, and physical therapy has finally helped her cope better, but unfortunately her health kept her from completing her undergraduate degree on time. While her condition is something she has accepted as a part of life, it has kept her from living a normal life. “The worst part is meeting people after a while,” she says. “I’m so tired of hearing: what, you’re still doing that? Because I don’t want to explain what keeps me from doing it. I don’t like being negative or talking too much about myself. But it’s hard to hear such things from such people and not be able to tell them that I would have been able to do so much more had I not had this problem.”

Another person I know who used to have a painful gastrointestinal condition didn’t like talking about it, either. She would dress up, go out, talk, and laugh, and I would be startled to find out afterwards that she was feeling terrible all along. She shrugged it off. She would tell me that feeling ill can’t be an excuse for looking or acting sloppy. And no one could really comprehend the kind of havoc her body wreaked on her. So she might as well pretend everything is fine and not bother anyone about it.

To bring up the oft-repeated wisdom, we are not defined by what happens to us, but how we deal with it. There are people who bitterly complain about their conditions, blaming their parents and friends and alienating themselves in the process. While they are not pleasant to listen to, I remind myself that in an alternative reality in which I am sickly, I might be much, much worse in my complaining and self pity.

But there are several ill individuals, like the friends I mentioned earlier, who embody sabr in a complete manner. Like the two friends I talked about, they happen to be incredibly good sports in dealing with their situations. They go out, smile, employ all the positive energy they have and focus on things that are plentiful and abundant instead of the things in their bodies that are negative and debilitating. They have understood that at the end of the day, no one can suffer from pain but themselves.

It is a test that God put upon them, a test they didn’t ask for and certainly don’t deserve. The fatality of such conditions is the most serious trial a soul can go through. It’s the kind of thing that can break one’s spirit and faith.

For someone who has to bear with such physical anxiety, how can they desire the luxuries healthier people long for? The sick want so little. They don’t want material possessions, because they are of no use to them. All they yearn for is the one thing so many of us take for granted: to be in good health. Even their parents don’t have expectations of them. They can’t. Because the starting point of anything– whether it be  is good health. So all they ask for, plead ardently for, pray for, is good health for their children.

Illness has become a permanent state of being for those who have bad health, so they have to develop a lifestyle that helps them cope. God does not send down a burden more than what one can bear. But the bearing process tends to be highly underrated. Bearing is not passively taking what happens to you. It is trying to tend to it, live with it, and pull all the possible good out of it.

In our tradition is the idea that the person who is ill is the one whose prayers are answered. Perhaps that is because they are have to employ patience so completely, so consistently throughout the course of their daily lives.

I like being an indulgent, brooding artist, but when I see and interact with people who are genuinely sick, I feel ashamed. I can’t control my anxiety or sadness and loneliness, but seeing those who have little health made me realize the importance of not needlessly pitying oneself. As soon as I find the contempt rising, I try to imagine what life is like for the person who is ill. And I’m cowardly enough to not bear it. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been put through this test. God does not send down a greater burden than one can bear, so perhaps I’m simply not built to bear the physical and psychological burden of a serious health-related affliction.

From the sunnah of the prophet there is a tradition in saying a special supplication upon seeing those who are in distress. I need to not only say this duaa: I need to internalize it. I am deeply frightened by the prospect of becoming arrogant by virtue of being blessed with good health, and I must never let that happen. This duaa must be written within the walls of my heart and become a part of my being so that it rises to the occasion every time I see someone who is distressed because they are ill.

Several years ago, my father imparted the most invaluable and irrefutable gem of truth to me: in this world, a person doesn’t need nearly as much money as he thinks he needs. What he does need is a few good friends and good health. The more sensitive I become to those who are sick, the more the various colours and dimensions of that truth are realized.

May Allah grant all us who who suffer from illness–whether temporary or elongated–enough patience to get us through these trials. May He cleanse us of our sins simply by virtue of the fact that we endure with patience. May He surround the sickly ones with those who have empathy and compassion and sensitivity for their condition. And may He never let those of us who have good health to stop being grateful for it.